Setting up a home audiophile-quality sound system can be challenging because of the wide range of options available. Confusion arises when choosing between an integrated amp and a preamp + power amp. So, what is the difference between an integrated amp and a preamp?
A preamp is a signal-boosting device that takes the audio signal from the music-playing device and amplifies it. An integrated amp contains a built-in preamp and a power amp. A separate preamp produces better, high-fidelity sounds, while an integrated amp is cheaper and more convenient.
Although a preamp (+ power amp) and integrated amp do the same job, they have different qualities and features suitable for different purposes. Read on as we expand on these differences to see which is better for your preferences. I’ll also answer whether you can use an integrated amp as a preamp.
What Does a Preamp Do?
Although preamps are an essential component of any audiophile-quality setup, they have a simple job.
A preamp takes the weak signals from the audio source, whether a CD player, a turntable, or a music streaming device, and increases its gain. Without a preamp, the signal input is too weak to be fed to the speaker.
As a result, you must get an amplifier for your setup to get that high-fidelity sound that you’re longing for.
A preamp is particularly necessary for vinyl. That’s because the sound produced by phono players is much weaker than digital devices, and you want to boost the sound signals.
In addition, low-frequency signals are reduced in vinyl records to prevent the stylus from entering the previous groove. Conversely, higher frequencies are boosted to eliminate noise. A phono preamp uses RIAA equalization to accentuate low signals and attenuate the high signal, equalizing the overall sound.
A preamp takes these signals, amplifies the sound waves, and makes them ready for the next amplification stage.
In that stage, the amplifier takes the boosted signals from the preamp, makes them even stronger, and feeds them to the speakers. That means it should sit between the sound source and the power amplifier.
Some audio sources like CD players and music-streaming devices have built-in preamps, meaning you don’t need a standalone preamp. But a dedicated preamp is more efficient in boosting and equalizing the signal and removing noise.
That’s because it has smaller circuits and more compact components to fit into the sound source. As a result, many hardcore audiophiles prefer to have a standalone preamp in their signal chain.
Types of Preamps
Preamps come in different styles, designs, and components on the market, and each can produce varying results. Here are the main types:
Tube preamps feature a rather old but effective technology that uses glass tubes to amplify sound signals to the line level. The tubes contain heaters that excite electrons in the sound signal and boost sound signals.
Although the technology is old, tube preamps are highly popular among audiophiles because of the warm and vintage-like sound they produce. They add a pleasant distortion to the sound, giving it more depth and character.
However, they’re more expensive since they’re handmade and require high maintenance. Moreover, preamp tubes only last up to 5 years.
Unlike tube preamps, solid-state preamps use digital technology to boost signals through circuits and transistors.
The digital element means the produced sound is clear, transparent, and crisp but doesn’t have the pleasant harmonics produced by tube preamps.
As a result, the sound may sound “characterless and cold” according to some. However, these preamps are low-maintenance and less expensive, making them viable for low-budget and beginner setups.
Phono preamps are dedicated preamps for vinyl setups. They’re an absolute necessity for vinyl because, as mentioned, the sound produced by vinyl turntables is too weak for a high-fidelity setup.
In addition, the sound contains imbalances that create a low-quality result, only fixable by a preamp.
Phono preamps can be a moving coil and moving magnet. Moving coil preamps produce a higher quality sound, but the output is lower. Plus, it’s more expensive.
On the other hand, moving magnet preamps produce a higher sound at the cost of quality.
Integrated Amp Types Explained
A Hi-Fi sound system that involves a preamp can’t be complete without a power amp. A power amp is part of the signal chain that takes the signal amplified by the preamp, makes it even stronger, and sends it to the speaker. Without the power amp, the signal isn’t powerful enough to drive the speaker cone.
In other words, a preamp doesn’t have enough strength to move the speakers.
If you have a standalone preamp, you also need a dedicated power amp. However, you can have both of these components in one device. This is what we call an integrated amp.
Like preamps, integrated amps come in two types: tube and solid-state. Tube amps contain a set of tube preamps that boost the input signals to feed them to the larger tube power amps.
Solid-state amps also contain preamps and power amps. The tubes are replaced with transistors and digital circuits.
There’s a third type called a hybrid amp. It’s a combination of tube and solid-state amps. It could have tube preamps and solid-state power amps or vice versa. As the name suggests, the hybrid type gives you the best of both worlds. However, many audiophiles prefer non-hybrid varieties.
Pros and Cons of Integrated Amp vs Separate Preamp
Both options can be great, depending on your preferences. Consider the benefits and disadvantages of each device to make a more informed decision.
The biggest advantage of a standalone preamp is better sound quality and a more transparent output.
That’s because a dedicated preamp has fewer parts than an integrated amp in which the power amp can introduce noise.
Another thing that can induce noise is all the connectivity options incorporated into an integrated amp. In an integrated amp, the preamp circuits are low-voltage and are rather sensitive. But they need to sit close to noisy high-voltage amplifier components.
That’s particularly the case if you have powerful speakers and want a powerful sound system overall.
Only audiophiles will appreciate the better audio quality separate devices produce. Others may not even notice the difference in sound.
A dedicated preamp doesn’t overheat as much as a power amp. So, having two separate units can prevent damage from the power amp to the preamp.
Related article: Should a Preamp Get Hot? [What Is Too Much?]
However, using two separate devices means a more complex setup requiring many different wires and connections. Furthermore, you need a bigger space to give you enough flexibility to put each component at the right distance with others to avoid interference.
That’s particularly challenging if you’re a beginner and don’t know where to start.
There’s less to consider with an integrated amp, and you can choose your device more easily.
Another advantage of an integrated amp is lower costs. Getting two separate devices will be more expensive than one if you’re on a budget.
In addition, a separate preamp gives you more flexibility to fine-tune your audio to your desired quality. However, this benefit may matter to seasoned audiophiles who want more control over the output.
Suppose you’re a beginner and don’t want to be overwhelmed by different choices. In that case, you may opt for an integrated amp that determines its quality through its internal components. The manufacturer chooses compatible elements to give the most favorable results.
Therefore, an integrated amplifier is the best option for most people. Unless you really want the best audio quality possible and don’t mind paying the extra dollars, that is.
Can You Use an Integrated Amp as a Preamp?
You can use an integrated amp as a preamp because it’s a combination of a preamp and power amp. So, you can amplify the sound signal and drive the speaker using only one device. However, you may not get the sound quality that a dedicated preamp would give.
So, technically, it’s possible to use an integrated amp as a preamp. But the choice eventually depends on you and your preferences.
Using a Preamp With an Integrated Amp
So, you may have an old integrated amp, but you can’t afford to buy a separate preamp and power amp to get a more detailed and clear system. Or, you may want to experience the warm sound of tube amps, but you can only afford to buy the preamp. You may wonder if you can get a preamp and connect it to the integrated amp.
The short answer is yes.
Using a dedicated preamp allows you to boost the incoming signal and add character to the output based on the features of the preamp.
There’s a catch, though. Connecting the preamp to an integrated amp can produce lots of noise and distortion that does more harm than good.
That’s because the integrated amp has a built-in preamp, which interferes with the work of the separate preamp and leads to distortion.
Thankfully, there’s a simple solution to this issue: you can bypass the built-in preamp.
You can ask an electrician or do it yourself if you have the technical skills. Put a switch in the integrated amp that allows you to turn the built-in amp on and off. When you turn the switch on, you’ll bypass the built-in preamp and send the signal from the standalone preamp directly to the power amp.
How To Choose a Good Integrated Amp
If you decide to get an integrated amp because you want more convenience or have a tight budget, you may want to know what to look for. Here are the main features of an integrated amp:
An integrated amp means you have only one device to connect your input to output sources (you may also have a DAC, but that doesn’t replace the amplifier). The amplifier should allow you to use any input or output source to eliminate the need for other devices.
These days, most integrated amps offer a wide range of connectivity options, including analog and digital audio inputs.
That’s because you may need to connect your amplifier to different sources, such as:
- A computer
- A CD player
- Other audio streaming devices
RCA inputs also come in handy for DACs or cassette decks. Another input you may look for in an integrated amp is an XLR input. These inputs reduce noise and reproduce high-quality sound. So, if you have any other devices with these inputs, you can connect them to your amp to improve your sound quality.
If you want to connect digital devices to your amp, it should have a built-in DAC to turn analog signals into digital. This way, you can connect it to your audio source. You’ll need type A and B USB ports, coaxial digital input, and an Ethernet port that could come in handy to let you use any digital audio source.
Suppose you want to bring all the benefits of the digital age into your music-listening experience. In that case, you’ll want to have wireless streaming, too.
You’ll want to look for an amplifier that supports this feature. They come with built-in WIFI, Apple AirPlay 2, and Bluetooth, allowing you to listen to music from online streaming services like Spotify or Tidal. You can even stream music from your smartphone or tablet via Bluetooth!
The amplifier should also allow you to connect it to various output devices. You’ll need a headphone jack and subwoofer output in addition to speaker connectors.
Having lots of connectivity options is something. Making sure you can connect the amp to compatible devices is another.
Pay attention to the amp’s power output, impedance, and sensitivity. You should also know these values for the speaker to ensure they’re compatible.
Afterward, you should listen to the output sound to see if it’s your desired type.
One of the most praised integrated amplifiers on the market is the Marantz PM6006 Integrated Amplifier (available on Amazon.com). It features a wide array of connectivity options and produces a clear, high-quality sound. The 45-watt power amp may not be very strong, but it’s more than enough for home use. Its quality makes it popular among audio lovers.
How To Choose a Standalone Preamp
When deciding about a preamp, you should first choose between tube and solid-state. While budget can be a huge factor, the sound quality and character ultimately determine which you should get.
If you go for a tube amp, make sure it has several tubes. In general, the more tubes it has, the better the sound quality. If a tube preamp has one or two tubes, it’s likely a hybrid that may not reproduce the warm vintage sound you’re looking for. Moreover, each tube adds a different effect to the sound signal, so many tubes mean more character.
What’s more, look for analog volume controls on the preamp. Digital volume controls are OK, but they do add a digital feel. Finally, listen to different tube preamps to see which one sounds better to you.
If you want a more digital experience, you can go for a solid-state preamp. These preamps offer many connectivity options such as:
- Optical audio
- Coaxial audio
However, some audiophiles believe that too many connectivity options might lower the sound quality by introducing noise.
So, if you only have one type of music source (analog, digital, or vinyl), you should go for a purpose-built dedicated preamp.
Some of them have apps, remote controls, and even operating systems. Again, you should listen to the output sound and ensure it’s the one you want.
A preamp and an integrated amp are necessary components of a high-fidelity sound system. They amplify the weak input sounds and make them ready for the speaker.
However, an integrated amp is simpler because it can be directly connected to the speaker. Integrated amps contain another essential component: a power amp. It takes the amplified signal from the preamp, makes it stronger, and sends it to the speaker.
A standalone preamp doesn’t have a power amp, meaning you need to buy a separate power amp to drive the speaker. That said, many audiophiles prefer separate preamps since they produce higher-quality sounds.